While the Pathfinders Route is a bit more hilly than the RTA creekside route, it's important to keep these hills in perspective. The Pathfinders Route does avoid the worst hills in the area: the steep sharp climbs up the side of the Wolli Valley itself.
By far the biggest hill on the Pathfinders Route is the crest in the middle of Slade Rd. It is certainly a hill that will slow down cyclists. But there are many similar hills on bike routes in the inner city. The existing off-road cyclepath path next to the M5 has a much bigger hill, in Beverly Hills west of King Georges Rd.
The worst thing about the Slade Rd hill for cyclists is that there is nowhere safe to shelter from cars travelling at up to 50 km/h. This lack of safety and dedicated space can make a hill much harder for cyclists. It is a problem that the Pathfinders Route directly addresses with several possible solutions.
Significantly, the Pathfinders Route includes a bridge over Bardwell Creek within a grassed reserve. This avoids a hill climb in both directions if the route was instead to go on-road at that point.
In that section the land has been built on by new townhouses. It would be very expensive and politically difficult to resume that land. There doesn't seem to be any room to move the noise barriers any closer to the railway.
While we are not professional engineers, we believe the engineering required for the Pathfinders Route is possible. The RTA's ``M5 East Motorway Bicycle Strategy'', written by former Bicycle NSW head honcho Warren Salomon, briefly mentions a route similar to the Pathfinders Route as a an alternative route in times of flood or railway maintenance. It says the route is ``feasible'' if ``sympathetic local area traffic management treatments'' were included, and estimates the route can be built for $0.5 m.
The big question then is whether the route is possible politically. We believe this would be a good route for local residents, for cyclists, and for bush conservation. If the RTA and Rockdale Council choose to stand in the way of a good solution because of their obsession with cars rather than transport and friendly streets, we believe that's a mistake we should leave them to make, rather than self-censoring what we ask for.
We recommend surveying local residents to see what they think of the issues and options. We didn't have the resources to do this ourselves. We have concentrated on the concerns and conflicts between cyclists and conservationists.
The smaller roads are obviously Rockdale Council, but the busier roads could be either Rockdale Council or the RTA. We haven't had time to find out which. If you know please tell us.
Since the RTA is building the cyclepath, RTA support is obviously crucial for the Pathfinders Route to succeed. And since the route involves changing local traffic flows, the support of Rockdale Council for the whole route would be very desirable, even if it isn't legally essential.
The option north of the creek is on Canterbury Council roads.
Various things have been proposed. But we feel it's missing the point. The strip of land between the railway and the creek is often so narrow that a decent cyclepath and a native riparian habitat cannot co-exist.
Riparian is ecological jargon used to describe native habitats in and around waterways. This includes the soil types, water flows and all lifeforms that live or pass through the area. Many native species depend on the special conditions of riparian zones.
All of the creekside route is within the riparian zone of Wolli Creek.
A gabion is a metal cage full of rocks used to create a stable surface for further construction. The ecology of a gabion is very different and quite sterile compared to a natural creek bank.
Wolli Regional Park is 60 hectares. This doesn't include the creek or the southern bank.
Current ecological thinking is that a riparian buffer zone of 20 m to 50 m is required for a stream ecosystem to be at full health. However in the Wolli Valley the railway is rarely more than 10 m from the southern bank of Wolli Creek, and often the railway actually runs over the top of the former creekbed on artifical banks. If we estimate an average width for the Wolli riparian zone at 30 m wide, then over 2.5 km the total riparian area is 7.5 hectares.
The creekside cycleway route would directly impact a strip about 3 m to 6 m wide by 2.5 km long, which is about 1.3 hectares. The creekside route involves creating more artifical banks with gabions in at least four sections for a total of 190 m. A further 380 m of the creekside route is elevated above the creek and its floodplain, requiring pylons to be sunk into these riparian zones. Elsewhere it is nearly always within the minimum 20 m riparian buffer zone mentioned above. The development is expected to have major impacts on plants, animals and water quality in an environment that is already under considerable stress.
When our group the Wolli Pathfinders started meeting, the railway expansion had already been completed. We don't think it is very useful to dwell in the past and consider whether it should have been built. We want to focus on what is the best course of action to take from now on.
Two extra railway lines were added, one on either side of the existing lines. The new northern track did take over several metres of formerly riparian zone land. In addition, the construction did additional damage to the banks of the creek. This makes it even more critical to conserve what's left.
The creekside route is on railway land. The railways have insisted that the cyclepath be able to carry 3 tonne (or is it 5 tonne?) railway maintenance trucks. This significantly increases the engineering, expense, and ecological impact of the creekside route. It also means the path could be blocked by trucks during railway maintenance.
If the railways did not make this requirement, then the ecological impact would be smaller. But the basic effect would be the same: no viable riparian habitat on the southern banks of Wolli Creek.
There are plenty of weeds along Wolli Creek. This is a common problem in urban bushland, because of nutrient runoff and seed invasion from household gardens. But there is still lots of value in the habitat. Below the weeds, a lot of the original soil remains, with its stock of native seeds and other lifeforms. Even the weeds themselves provide shelter for native birds.
Most importantly, with careful work and ecological management, the weeds can be phased out in favour of native vegetation. There is no need to slash everything and start from scratch. Indeed such approaches can do more harm than good. It is much better to encourage the natives to come back from the remnant seeds already in place, using targeted weeding together with selected planting of local species. This is a basic principle of bush regeneration, which has successfully restored natural habitats all over Sydney.
The RTA proposes a landscape architect be brought in to make the creek bank attractive, using local native plants. However, what the creek bank needs to increase the value of its habitat is careful restoration. There are other places more suitable for landscaping and recreation, including within the new Wolli Regional Park on the northern side of the creek.
For the last few years the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has been managing the park, which unfortunately does not include the creek itself or the southern bank. They built picnic areas and upgraded various walking trails. They had further plans to open up parts of the park, while balancing a need to be sensitive and preserve the ecology. They planned to build new walking tracks for people to visit the northern bank of the Wolli Creek in selected viewing areas. They did not plan to build a track along the creek, presumably because of the ecological disruption such a path would cause.
Since the March 2003 NSW state election, the Wolli Regional Park has been transferred from the NPWS to NSW Sport and Recreation. The Wolli Creek Preservation Society is lobbying to ensure that bush conservation remains a top priority under the new management.
There are several reasons the creek is more weedy than the rest of the Wolli bush:
The cyclepath is not necessary for voluntary and professional bush regenerators to access the creek banks. Indeed, the cyclepath would eliminate any possibility of future restoration by sealing over much of the surface in the riparian zone on the southern side.
Any landscapers brought in by the RTA to make the cyclepath attractive would be under pressure to do so quickly. The temptation will be to slash the weeds and do mass plantings. However, this would actually be very damaging for the ecology because there is still a lot of remnant vegetation and local seed stocks, persevering amongst the weeds. The slash and plant approach also requires heavy ongoing maintenance.
The best way to nurse the creek back to top condition is with slow and careful regeneration of the bushland as a whole, including the creek and its banks, combined with careful catchment management.
A cycleway meandering along the creek bank seems very attractive for recreation. However, our ecological advisors say that a cyclepath along Wolli Creek is not compatible with conservation. There simply isn't room for both recreation and bush conservation. Even an unsealed walking trail would be highly damaging - generally such trails are not built along waterways, but instead visit them or cross over them.
The creekside route does not provide car parking, picnicing or rest and viewing spots for recreational users. Since it is squeezed between the railway line and the creek, the creekside route has only three access points, at the railway stations. Local recreational cyclists wanting to get on the creekside route would have to pass through angry rat-run streets, the same streets that the Pathfinders Route seeks to calm as part of constructing a top quality cyclepath.
Meanwhile the Wolli Creek Valley is almost surrounded by cyclepaths: Cooks River, M5 East, Botany Bay and the Alexandra Canal. The Pathfinders Route would make it easier for local residents to cycle to these off-road paths.
These are the reasons why we have concentrated on the goal of the Pathfinders Route as a local and regional bicycle transport route.
The Nature Conservation Council campaigns actively to preserve and restore urban bushland. Its website has a list of online resources. Especially relevant are: